Russellville hosts Hartselle in region showdown
Mike Self FCT Sports Editor
RUSSELLVILLE – In the midst of last week's celebration following a 48-0 shellacking of Brewer, word spread through the Russellville football ranks that Hartselle had knocked off Decatur (then the No. 2 team in Class 5A) 17-7 just moments earlier.
Upon hearing the news, Taz Tillery had one thing on his mind.
"I can't wait to play them," Russellville's senior offensive lineman said of the rival Tigers. "That's what I was thinking."
Tillery's wait ends tonight.
The top-ranked Golden Tigers will hope to continue their recent success against Hartselle as they host the Tigers in a critical early-season Class 5A, Region 8 showdown. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m.
Russellville (2-0, 1-0 region) has beaten Hartselle (2-0, 1-0) five times in five tries since the beginning of the 2002 season, but the Tigers' upset of Decatur should help the Golden Tigers avoid a case of overconfidence.
"Hartselle's a good football team," senior receiver Josh Harbin said. "We know Decatur's a good team, so Hartselle beating them is pretty impressive. We'll have to be ready to play tonight. We've been working too hard at practice to lose this one."
Russellville coach Perry Swindall admitted that Hartselle's win over Decatur certainly raised a few eyebrows, but he added that his players have come to expect a tough battle from the Tigers no matter what.
"It's certainly an eye-opening win," said Swindall, whose team has won 21 straight regular season games and 36 straight games in region play. "It definitely got the attention of our kids, but our kids already had a lot of respect for Hartselle. They always play us really tough. We know how good of a football team they are."
Russellville's phenomenal win streak in region play includes a handful of close calls against Hartselle. Last season, senior Rodney Suggs' 94-yard kickoff return for a touchdown broke a 6-6 tie with less than five minutes remaining in what turned out to be a 19-6 Russellville win.
Two seasons ago, the Golden Tigers rallied from a 28-21 deficit at Hartselle's J.P. Cain Stadium to win 35-28 on Jeremy Helms' 70-yard touchdown pass to Chris Trapp with 1:06 left to play.
In 2003, Russellville escaped with a 17-14 win when Hartselle star Nikita Stover (now playing at the University of Alabama) was stopped for a loss from the Golden Tiger 1-yard line on the game's final play.
Finally, in 2002, Russellville defeated Hartselle twice, rallying from a 21-14 deficit to win 35-21 during the regular season and then scoring 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of a 34-14 win in the state semifinals.
"I think over the past few years we have been able to execute in crucial spots and make the plays we needed to make to win the game," Swindall said. "As of right now, we don't know for sure who are playmakers are going to be. We have so many question marks with everything we're doing, we really just don't know.
"[Junior quarterback] Cory Trapp is going to have to play well and be the trigger man for what we do, and our offensive line is going to have to protect him well. That's something we didn't do a good job of last year [against Hartselle]."
After struggling in the season-opener against Deshler, Trapp got on track last Friday at Brewer, completing 27-of-38 attempts for 386 yards and three touchdowns.
"Cory really got with his game last week," said Harbin, one of eight different players to catch a pass in the first half against the Patriots. "He got good protection, and he made the plays we need him to make. He's looked good at practice again this week."
The Russellville passing game will get a boost tonight with the return of senior receiver Patrick Hines. As one of the few returning wideouts with significant game experience, Hines was expected to be a key contributor before missing the first two games due to injury.
"Patrick will give us even more depth at receiver," Harbin said. "We're glad to have him back out there."
According to Swindall, the Golden Tigers will need all hands on deck if they hope to take a major step toward winning their sixth consecutive region championship.
"This Hartselle team is much-improved over last year's team," Swindall said. "It's not even close. They're fast on defense, and they've got a very good offense. They're pretty big up front, and I think their offensive line versus our defensive line will be a key matchup. Our defense is going to have to play well. We have to get lined up right and be ready to make plays."
Russellville's defense made the difference in the second half against Hartselle last year, sacking Tiger quarterback Wes Chenault five times and allowing only 72 yards of offense.
On the flip side, Tillery said Hartselle's speed and athleticism on defense presents a challenge.
"They're really fast and quick on defense," he said. "They run a lot of stunts and things like that. We just have to recognize their stunts and try to keep the tempo up."
Swindall said his team will need its best effort to prevent Hartselle from knocking off the No. 1 team in the state a week after taking down the second-ranked Red Raiders.
"That was a big win for them, and they definitely deserved it," he said. "They played very well. They did everything they had to do to win the ball game.
"Hartselle's just a good football team. They're always really solid. They know what they're doing, and they do it well. If they come over here and play well and we don't, we'll get beat. It's as simple as that."